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In the Mexican border town of Nogales, Sonora, where buses drop off the newly deported every few hours from the American side, almost everyone seems to have been through Operation Streamline, a U.S. Border Patrol program that aims to hit all migrants entering the U.S. illegally with a criminal conviction.
There's the street peddler, Gary, selling multicolored balloons and pinwheels to the cars lining up to cross into the United States at the main port of entry. He was on his way to San Francisco when he was caught near Sasabe, Arizona, and put through Streamline's wringer.
"It was a bad experience," he says (all Streamline defendants interviewed spoke Spanish). He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of entering the United States without permission, a conviction the Border Patrol believes operates as a deterrent to illegal immigration.
But Gary is determined to cross again. The conviction will not dissuade him, he vows.
Near where Gary's plying his trade, a line of men and women file through a gated passageway into Mexico, after stepping off one of the many buses that deliver deported migrants every couple hours to the U.S.-Mexico line.
Most of the new deportees passing by describe having been shackled hand and foot for the Streamline court in Tucson. Many have just done 30 days or more at a facility in Florence, Arizona, run by Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison behemoth that jails Streamline convicts for the U.S. government.
One clean-cut young man named Luis stops for a moment. He was apprehended in Arivaca, Arizona, on his way to Minneapolis to work as a roofer. He has an aunt up there, he says.
Would he try crossing again, even though he might get more time if caught?
"Yeah, I will," he promises, before moving on with the rest. "I'm not a fucking criminal. I just want to work."
Several people say they felt as though they had no choice but to plead guilty during the Streamline proceedings that occur every weekday at 1:30 p.m. at the federal courthouse in Tucson. There, 70 people a day plead to misdemeanor offense of improper entry by alien, or 18 U.S.C. §1325 of the federal code. Most receive time served. Others who have been previously deported from the U.S. get up to six months in prison as part of a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office, wherein the more serious felony offense of reentry of a removed alien, or 18 U.S.C. §1326, is dropped.
Champions of Operation Streamline argue that the migrants get a sweet deal, either time served—usually the one to three days they've been in Border Patrol custody—or 30 to 180 days, far less than they'd receive if convicted on a reentry charge. A conviction on §1326 is punishable by two, 10, or 20 years, depending on the circumstances.
Moreover, the Border Patrol maintains that Streamline, which began in 2005 in Del Rio, Texas, and spread to nearly every jurisdiction on the southwest border, is a success. The agency points to dramatic declines in apprehensions where Streamline has been in place.
But Streamline's intended deterrent effect on illegal migration is not borne out by the Border Patrol's own apprehension numbers. The program is a mega-million-dollar boondoggle that fattens the Border Patrol's budget and enriches private prison companies. It diverts resources from pursuing more serious crimes, such as human smuggling and drug and gun trafficking.
Also, Streamline's many critics complain that the program is arbitrary, inhumane and violates due process as well as a Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel—all for a program that is essentially unnecessary, as an immigrant's removal through the civil administrative process already bars him or her from legal reentry for five years.
At a Nogales station for Grupos Beta, a Mexican aid agency that assists migrants when they come back across the border, the newly deported linger. The station sits next to a cemetery pockmarked with recent bullet holes.
A man named Jose says he was on his way to Texas when he was nabbed by the Border Patrol near Sasabe. Jose did 55 days in Florence, and says his lawyer told him to plead culpable, or guilty. The 55 days he served won't stop him from crossing again. He has a wife and children in Texas. He must go back.
Emma, 42, will be returning too, eventually. Before her Streamline hearing, the Border Patrol fed her by throwing cookies on the ground in front of her, she says. In court, the handcuffs hurt her wrists. She thought she had no option but to plead guilty. She got time served before getting bused to Nogales.
Her husband and two children are in California. Emma came to tend to a sick sister in Mexico and hasn't been able to get back to her family for three years. She says she will keep trying.
"I'm scared," she explains. "But my family's there."
Asked whether her treatment was unfair, she says it was.
"We're not criminals," she says. "I don't feel like a criminal."
Though U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano claims the DHS (of which Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol are a part) is targeting "criminal aliens" for removal, the Obama administration is creating criminal aliens through Streamline.
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